Interview with Jan Lauwers: “I need company!

Iante Gaia Roach  08.20.2013

I meet with Jan Lauwers, “an artist who works in just about every medium” as stated on his company’s website, and his dramaturg Elke Janssen at sunset at the Venice Biennale’s headquarters in Ca’ Giustinian. They offer me a drink at the café, overlooking the sea and the Giudecca Island. These are busy days for them – although I soon discover just how intense a schedule they lead, travelling constantly: they have just performed the Needcompany’s 2012 production Marketplace 76 as part of the Venice Biennale’s International Theatre Festival, to wide acclaim, and Lauwers is running a workshop with young actors. He recounts for me how he moved from the visual arts into theatre, founding the celebrated Needcompany in 1986 together with choreographer Grace Ellen Barkey, and many other fascinating matters.

Iante Roach: How did you choose ‘Needcompany’, your theatre company’s name?
Jan Lauwers: When I began doing theatre in 1979, I wanted to do theatre only for five years and then return to visual arts. The idea was to step out of visual arts and see what they meant from a distance, by doing theatre, which at the time I perceived as the worse medium for an artist.

By 1984-85 I was very successful in theatre, and stopped working with my initial collective. I began working with the founder of the most famous underground space in Brussels at the time. He commissioned a performance, but since I had stopped working with the collective, I told him “I need company”, and I’ve written 25 plays since!

I experience a flow of artistic creation, I’m a theatre-maker but I work in theatre as an artist works in art, not as a director, in the sense that an artist questions the medium he works in. In conventional, repertory theatre the writer is the artist, and then there’s a team headed by a director, who is only a half artist. When I see a theatre show that doesn’t question its medium, I get bored very quickly.

IR: How come did you choose the number 76 in the title and plot of Marketplace 76, the show you toured to Venice? Does it have a particular meaning?
JL: I was a young man in 1976, and in that year my life changed: Bob Wilson wrote and premiered Einstein on the Beach, the first record of the Sex Pistols came out, I saw a big exhibition by Joseph Beuys, it was my first year at art school…

IR: One of the aspects of Marketplace 76 which struck me the most was its extraordinary timing and the constant switches in the play’s pacing.
JL: Theatre is a form of energy exchange, and I’m very careful that the energy of each image is the right energy for that moment. Theatre is all about timing, and finding freedom within the timing. What we do, as directors, is more like listening: does it sound good? Does the energy match the time? It involves attuning ourselves to a different space every time, since we are a touring company. For instance, if there are surtitles we have to re-think the timing. The preparation work is highly auditive. The dynamics and the rhythm give a further value to our message. Thanks to the presentation technique, a good show looks like a live improvisation. When that’s what the audience thinks, I’m happy. But of course it’s not improvised, and an improvisation would hardly look that way! The combination of text, music, choreography and so forth in our shows is the result of a great deal of work, focused on finding the right dynamics.

IR: How long did you and the Needcompany writing on Marketplace 76, from the time of its inception and writing to the time it was ready to go on stage?
JL: I wrote the play alone, in my studio and on tour. It took a few months, but the work wasn’t continuous. Then I invited the actors to work on it, for 12 weeks, spread out over the time span of one year, which was much better, as it allowed for the mental process to spread out over time. This is the advantage of working with an ensemble. At the moment, for instance, we are touring six different productions!

IR: How do you choose your performers?
JL: It takes a long time. The Needcompany’s ensemble is composed of 11 full-time performers and five freelance performers. My actors have to fit many criteria. They must know the difference between presentation and representation. They must know that they are images on stage, and that theatre is image making. They must be highly trained and speak at least three languages. They must be willing to abandon their nationality: the Needcompany is opposed to nationalism, which Einstein defined as the child disease of our civilization. By now, it has become the plague of our civilization.

I started the Needcompany in 1986, choosing to spell its name the wrong way (in one word, rather than two separate words), and choosing a name that wasn’t Dutch. From the beginning, I made it clear that I intended to question identity. I write in Dutch, but I’ve never heard any of my plays in Dutch: they are translated immediately. I am a defender of the European Union – but the only way for it to work is for us all to destroy our own identity, and find a new one. Being Flemish and speaking Dutch as a first language, I learnt various languages in my youth, and believe that Europe can really unite only if people learn languages. By the 1980s, there had been over 800 wars after WWII – we recited the names of each and every one in one of my early performances, and then re-used this material, originally obtained from the University of Antwerp, in the Needcompany’s play Images of Affection. By now, the number of post-1945 wars must have risen over 1,000. This indicates that we really haven’t learnt anything, and that identity remains a crucial problem.

IR: Do you train your performers in a specific way?
JL: My performers have to possess a very good métier before I start working with them. The Needcompany’s most important project, House of Our Fathers, trains us (including myself, as I participate in it) in the format of presentation. It is structured this way: we ask museums to keep aside all the leftovers of an exhibition (such as panels, for instance) for a month. Then we make a house with the leftovers, I put my artwork in it, as an installation, and we perform there during the museum opening hours – so about eight hours a day, non-stop. The last one took place in Hannover. The project began in 2007 as  Deconstructions, and it is open to the audience.

But my performers receive their real, solid training from others, not from me, with dance classes and so forth.

IR: Would you like to tell me about the workshop you’re leading in Venice, and how you chose the participants?
JL: As for choosing the participants, I took various elements into consideration: their motivation letters, their photos, and especially their background. I didn’t want them to be too old, for instance: why would you do a workshop if you’re older than 35? It was a delicate judgement, and the selection was inevitably superficial, but I found myself working with a great group and with very engaged young actors.

I do not give workshops often, about one every two years. Here I’ve been working on the presentation format, and the idea is to give these young actors a chance to be seen by audiences and people in the business. I try to present them as beautiful as they can be, getting them to show their talent and who they are to the audience. Working on the presentation format creates a very strong connection. I tried to get to know them in one day, and to then create the show in a few days. Today we did the first run, which lasted 40 minutes – and it needs to be cut down to 15 minutes by the day after tomorrow!

As for the subject of the workshop, we are working on the last act of Shakespeare’s King Lear, known as the ‘impossible act’. It was censored for 200 years: a happy ending was re-written for the play, as the original ending was considered too dark. Edward Kean restored the true ending in 1836, but it was not well received by Londoners, so he felt compelled to revert to the forged ending after only three performances. It was finally restored once and for all some fifteen years later.

IR: What are your future projects?
JL: I am working on at least five upcoming projects! One is the Needcompany’s second feature film, which we will shoot in 2014. I am also writing a big project for 2014: John Cassavetes, who was one of my mentors in my youth, especially in the way he worked with his actors, is hardly known by younger generations. I contacted the John Cassavetes Foundation, which has his last script, Begin the Beguine, written in 1987. He died before ever working on it, so I am in charge of the script’s world creation, a play due to debut in 2014. Now you have a scoop in your hands!.

Marketplace 76, directed by Jan Lauwers/Needcompany. Images courtesy of 42nd International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale and Biennale College – Theatre.

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